Kalpesh Lathigra/ Contour by Getty Images
PACIFIC RIM directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by Travis Beacham and del Toro, with Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi and Charlie Day. A Warner Bros. release. 131 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (July 12). For venues and times, see Movies.
The London-born actor - who first broke out as the homicidally pragmatic Stringer Bell on landmark HBO series The Wire, and has parlayed that experience into a really interesting career - is all over the place. He's starring in Guillermo del Toro's gargantuan action movie Pacific Rim, the third season of his BBC detective series Luther just started airing in the UK, and his name keeps coming up when people talk about the next James Bond.
I was supposed to meet Elba in San Francisco, but he was waylaid by what we were informed was an ugly stomach bug and ended up speaking to me over the phone from London a few days later.
I get the sense it wasn't an easy trip home. There's a weariness to his voice that sounds like he's still dealing with something heavier than jet lag. But Elba rallies when we start talking about his newfound niche as a guy who makes massive studio pictures (Thor, Prometheus and now Pacific Rim) and still manages to play rounded human beings.
"I'd prefer to do a movie about two people in a room with a dilemma," he laughs, "but you know, this is a much bigger scale. You still want to be able to feel the characters, feel what they say. If I can find any sort of thread of reality or relatability in characters in such big films, that's surely the goal."
Pacific Rim casts Elba as the remarkably named Stacker Pentecost, leader of the Jaeger Program - a squad of giant mechanical fighting machines, each powered by two human pilots, that beat back the gargantuan monsters invading Earth through a dimensional rift deep in the Pacific Ocean. (It's a lot simpler than it sounds.)
Pentecost is a father figure to most of the characters, but he's also a father figure to the human race. In a separate interview, Guillermo del Toro tells me that once Tom Cruise didn't work out, he knew the role had to go to Elba.
"I wanted the best actor for the part, and Idris has such weight," he explains. "In a movie about 25-storey-high robots and monsters, you need someone with gravity. He has that authority, and he's immensely human."
The director sold Legendary Pictures on Elba using his work on The Wire and Luther.
"It [took some] evangelization," he says. "Stringer Bell's arc into a world that he thinks he controls but doesn't is fantastic. And then [there's] Luther. I said, ‘This is the guy with the moral authority to be the centre of the film.'"
Del Toro describes Pacific Rim as a simple story told in a complex way, and that carries over to the acting. The movie's heroes are archetypes, but the performers have opportunities to flesh them out - which is what Elba says drew him to the role.
"The storyline, the special effects, the action, the sounds are all very big, but you really want the human moments," he says. "Those conversations should feel like real people, I think. And because Stacker's kinda like a traffic warden - you know, he points in the direction of what happens next, what we do, where we go - he needs to feel as real as possible."
Reality is the key for Elba. Even though he's spent half his career in impossible situations - holding back the raging infected in 28 Weeks Later, guarding a dimensional bridge in Thor, commanding an ill-fated starship in Prometheus, trying to manage Steve Carell in The Office's strangest subplot - he always tries to find a concrete, credible place from which his characters can originate. He says it's all he knows.
"I can't see what I'm doing, you know. I can only be placed into a scenario of ‘Give me this, give me that.'"
Of Prometheus, for example: "That film might as well have been [set] in a factory somewhere, in the sense that although the jeopardy of everything around it is so big and epic, the characters were all very working-class. My character, certainly, was a layman, a regular man in an extraordinary situation.
"It does mean you [still] have to act," he laughs. "It doesn't mean you can rely on the costumes and the beauty of technology. You have to really pull these characters to life."
Elba provides Prometheus with its sole human moment when his character half-jokingly offers Charlize Theron's hard-shelled executive a roll in the hay to relieve their shared stress - and finds himself fumbling when she accepts.
"Right, yeah," he laughs. "That's good, that's an achievement. Not saying that about myself, but that's an achievement of the film - that moment when people go, ‘Ah!' in recognition of an actual connection. That's what classics are all about, you know."
Classics are hard to come by these days - and I'd take exception to the notion that Prometheus is one - but Elba's used to searching for good material. When you spend three seasons playing one of the strongest characters in The Wire, anything else is going to look... paltry.
"Coming out of that [was] great and also depressing," he says. "The material coming my way was never as good. And it's to be expected. Things like The Wire don't come along every day."
But he wants to keep searching, and he wants to challenge himself.
"My motivation for my career is about diversity," he says. "I definitely can play, you know, three notes on the piano, but there are god knows how many other notes you can play. I want people to look back on a long career and go, ‘Oh my god, he's been all these different people.'
"That really makes me excited," he continues. "that I can keep people thinking, ‘Oh, I wonder what's gonna happen next.' Like, Gary Oldman - who I can't compare myself to, no way - but he [makes] a similar sort of decision in the way he chooses roles: ‘I just want to reinvent myself on camera!' You know?"
Elba's next reinvention is a long way from Stringer Bell or Stacker Pentecost, though the role is still larger than life: he's playing the young Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, a biographical drama from Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) that sounds like it'll be making its way to the Toronto Film Festival in September.
Elba won't discuss whether he's been in contact with Mandela's family ("No comment, sorry, no comment"), but he definitely believes in the picture.
"It's quite a provocative film," he says. "It's very brave. I'm excited for people to see it. It's a lesser-known story about who he was as a younger man. And as far as me playing it, I'm a vessel. It's really about him - the character, the man, the story."
Somewhere in there, he shot the third season of Luther, playing a deeply flawed, ethically challenged homicide detective trapped in a co-dependent relationship with a Lecter-like serial killer played by Ruth Wilson (currently on-screen as Armie Hammer's love interest in The Lone Ranger). It starts back up on BBC Canada July 18.
"We kinda know who we are as a show now," he says. "All the traits, the camerawork, the darkness - it's very dark this year. And you know, we're trying to educate audiences toward seeing Luther on the big screen, basically."
Really? A Luther movie?
"There is a plan," he says. "There is a plan, there is a discussion. Hopefully it will happen."
And in a world of blockbusters, Idris Elba might finally have a franchise to call his own.